Strong Women: ‘People say I am fearless. But that is rubbish. I am human’


Women have long been indoctrinated with the idea that you have to look a certain way in order to be fit.

It’s everywhere. Adverts, social media, TV shows – the only women who get to be strong, healthy and love their bodies are size 6 Instagram models, clad head-to-toe in lycra with intimidating abs and an inexplicable thigh gap.

It teaches us over and over again that this is the ideal female form. And anything that doesn’t fit the mould is wrong, even shameful.

The world of fitness and women’s sport is crying out for more diverse representation.

Women of all ages, sizes, races and abilities can be strong, fit and unbelievably inspirational. But we never get to see them.

A huge study by Sport England found that 75% of women say fear of judgement puts them off being active. And 40% of women over the age of 16 aren’t meeting the recommended levels of weekly fitness.

So it’s more important than ever for women to reclaim the narrative and celebrate their inner strength. Regardless of what they look like.

This series aims to redefine what it means to be a strong woman. We will meet some of the incredible ladies who are challenging accepted norms every single day.

This week we meet Ella Foote, an outdoor swimmer who braves the cold year-round and couldn’t care less how you think she looks in a swimming costume.

(Picture: Ella Foote/Metro.co.uk)

Tell us about your relationship with fitness

At school, fitness and exercise was something either compulsory or not enjoyable.

The exercise I enjoyed most was the kind where I didn’t notice I was getting in shape when I did it. Spending hours on my bike with my mates, dancing, heading to the ice rink to meet boys, evenings at the roller disco and Saturdays at the swimming pool.

When I left university, I didn’t really know how to keep in shape. I hated the gym.

Around 2007 I asked myself – what sport do I really enjoy doing when it doesn’t feel like effort? The answer was swimming.

Ploughing up and down the pool wasn’t fun though, swimming in the sea – now that is what brought me joy.

I found a mile sea swim challenge raising money for the British Heart Foundation and set my sights on it. I went to the pool to train. I was covering a mile no problem, but when it came to the event. My weak breaststroke wasn’t enough and I didn’t finish the mile. The tide was against me and I had to walk to the finish. I was so embarrassed.

So I went back to the pool, had a couple of lessons to improve my front crawl and then practiced it. The following summer I conquered  the mile sea swim. It felt fantastic, I wanted to do more.

I didn’t live near the sea, I started to seek rivers and lakes locally to get my outdoor swimming fix. I was interested in wetsuits or speed. I wanted to feel the water.

I met strangers in riverside car parks, I swam in lakes with eels swimming beneath me and weeds stroking my legs. It was a combination of love and fear. I was hooked.

I started to learn I was a pretty hardy swimmer, could handle the cold well and my stubborn nature spurred me on to finish a swim despite my fleshy and wobbly figure.

I had always hated my body – consistently striving to be thinner – but in the water I loved it. By the end of 2012 I had completed many more short distance open water swims and an English Channel relay swim. In 2014 I set myself the task to swim the Dart 10k and also completed the Thames Marathon swim of 14k from Henley bridge to Marlow.

Today I swim all year-round, rain, shine or snow.

What challenges have you faced?

In 2015, the annual Active People survey found that almost half a million women in England have given up swimming in the past decade amid fears about how they look in a swimsuit. I am consistently asked about my relationship with my body and wearing a swimsuit. I don’t think men are asked this question or women who are thinner.

Swimming is the kind of sport where you can’t actually judge a person’s fitness by what they look like. You can be a strong and decent distance swimmer and be overweight.

I am overweight, I don’t look ‘sexy’ in a swimsuit. I have had to learn not to care what people think of what I look like in my cossie, because I know my body is strong in the water.

It breaks my heart when I hear women put themselves down, not go for a swim for fear of what their body looks like in a swimming costume. Many women have said to me, “I love swimming, but can’t face putting a swimsuit on – I don’t know how you do it.”

Another barrier is that brands, particularly outdoor brands, don’t do plus size clothing. I realise it is an investment in time and money to explore bigger clothing ranges, but often the biggest barrier into exercise is failing at the first hurdle and not being able to find something comfortable to wear.

I often walk across hills and up mountains for a good swim spot, it is impossible to find decent, confidence boosting clothing that supports my body and is practical. I’m often forced to wear men’s clothing.

(Picture: Ella Foote/Metro.co.uk)

Why do you think of yourself as a strong woman?

People often say I am fearless. But that is rubbish. I am human, I am often afraid. The difference is I do it anyway.

I can’t ever look back and know I didn’t do something because I was afraid. I will get into rivers, lakes, ponds and seas. I look marine creatures in the eye underwater and let the weeds brush against my skin. I peer off into deep dark shelves in the seabed, not knowing what is down there. I have swam across channels and leapt off rocks.

I have scared myself, I have gasped in fear of not knowing what just touched my leg. The trade-off is I am having the time of my life.

I have met the most inspiring, kind and wonderful people. Listened to stories, become a story. Swam in the most stunning parts of the UK and parts of Europe.

I am not afraid to do it alone, because there isn’t someone willing to hold my hand, or be at the end of the finishing line or rescue me when it goes wrong. I live in the faith that on the whole, people are good and it will be alright in the end.

What about role models – what do we need to see more of?

In the media there are no women like me. Across social media there are lots of amazing women breaking down the barriers, challenging ideas and doing it anyway. You have to really seek them out.

I am not a bigger woman who is overweight and proud. I would like to be in better shape, for my health and strength. Not for any other reason.

I realise images of me in my swimsuit aren’t going to sell swimsuits to the masses, but it might sell more swimsuits to more women who have been afraid to swim for fear of what they look like.

I often get messages on through my social media thanking me for inspiring them to get back in the water. You don’t have to be thin or athletic looking to be strong. But you do to sell products.

(Picture: Ella Foote/Metro.co.uk)

I don’t think women are scared to be perceived as strong. The fear comes from not ever being able to crack or be seen as anything but strong. Once you are seen as a strong person, it is hard to admit when you feel like marshmallow.

There are still women who I meet, even some of my friends, who ask for help when they are capable and strong enough to do things themselves. While there is no shame in asking for help, it is still a perception that we are more attractive when we play the needy, girly and cute card.

While many men love strong women, there are a great number who don’t. While they might say they do, they like nothing more than to be a rescuer.

My exercise isn’t just a way to keep mentally and physically fit, it is also a passion and joy.

To be immersed in nature, feel the pull of the water down your body as you glide down a river or along a coast. A mix of fear of all you can’t see below you and joy from all you can see above.

The pins and needles of winter swimming, red prickled skin. Mud between your toes and anxiety of how far the end point is. Not knowing, but knowing your body is good and strong. There is no greater feeling.



This Girl Can

Find out more about Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign on the website.

There are inspirational stories, workouts you can do in the park or on the school run, and loads of advice on how to build fitness into your daily routine.

You can even become a #ThisGirlCan supporter to help encourage women and girls of all shapes, sizes, abilities and backgrounds to get active.

Strong Women is a new weekly series that, after today, will be published on Saturdays at 10am.

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